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Society Hill is a quiet community with cobblestone streets and brightly colored banners touting neighborhood fairs. It is a place where colonial era townhouses bear historical markers, and residents bear the markings of wealth. It is a neighborhood that feels safe.
That air of safety is more than a feeling. According to AxisPhilly’s crime map, Society Hill experienced a 45 percent drop in violent crime between 2007 and 2012. And it’s no wonder. In a neighborhood with an average annual income of $145,260, according to Pew’s “State of The City 2013” report, residents expect to be secure.
But on the evening of April 29, that sense of security was shattered by what witnesses described as shouting followed by a gunshot. When the noise stopped and the smoke cleared, a neighborhood pharmacist who has yet to be identified lay bleeding on the sidewalk on Lawrence Street near Pine. It was the second shooting to occur near that intersection in a year, and it was a bloody reminder that no place is safe, and no ground is sacred when it comes to crime.
“The man who was shot [Monday] was almost steps away from the front of the church,” said Beverly Harper, an administrator at Old Pine Street Church, at Fourth and Pine. “Another man was shot last year on the side of the church. I’m not sure it’s an increase in crime. It’s just the way things are. It’s probably the new norm. I’m not sure where it’s coming from.”
The second shooting Harper referenced was the July 2012 shooting death of 32-year-old Michael G. Hagan, who was shot during a robbery at Fourth and Lombard. She didn’t mention the November 2011 shooting of 46-year-old Darren Rogers, who was shot on Lawrence Street near Pine, also a stone’s throw from the church.
Not everyone in Society Hill shares Harper’s assertion that such shootings are the new norm. Still, the neighbors with whom I spoke found them troubling. I did, too. Not because they’re more important than the shootings that occur in other parts of the city. I found them troubling because they shatter our illusion of safety.
As much as we’d like to believe nice neighborhoods insulate us from crime, the sad fact is that none of us is safe in Philadelphia, which has the highest homicide rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities. Maps might recognize dividing lines, but crime does not. Nor is it restricted to certain ethnic groups or socio-economic levels. Crime moves, it strikes, and it doesn’t care about cobblestone streets or historical markers. Crime doesn’t discriminate, but people in affluent areas can sometimes forget that, until disaster brings them back to reality.
“Neighbors are shocked when something happens in a neighborhood like this,” said Society Hill Civic Association Board President Steve Weixler. “It leads me to speculate that they think it won’t happen here because it doesn’t happen very often. I’ve been president for three years and I can recall three crimes that happened on the borders of our neighborhood … We don’t get that much violent crime within the boundaries of our neighborhood.”
But in my estimation, even the mention of boundaries is an indication of a problem, because crime knows no boundaries. It only knows perpetrators and victims. And in Philadelphia, where 60 percent of the violence was concentrated in eight of the city’s 22 police districts in 2012, crime is on the move. Perpetrators are seeking new victims, and they are crossing neighborhood borders to do so.
So how does a small area in a neighborhood like Society Hill become the scene of three shootings in three years? Having walked through the neighborhood, I observed several possible reasons. First, Lawrence Street is a small, somewhat isolated place. Second, the church and its adjacent cemetery are not occupied at night, which leaves fewer eyes on the area. Third, the neighborhood is affluent. And finally, too many potential victims ignore those conditions, because they believe wealthy neighborhoods are insulated from crime. Thankfully, not everyone is so naïve.
“I would think [Society Hill] would be a target,” said Harper, the administrator at Old Pine Street Church. “That’s pretty obvious … I don’t think people take [safety] for granted, but also a lot of people who live here are not from the area. They don’t know how city living is.”
Often, Weixler said, people leave valuables on their car seats or talk on cell phones while walking alone on dark streets. Though Weixler said the association plans to address safety by putting cameras in the community as part of a police pilot program, and delivers crime prevention tips in its bi-monthly newsletter, everyone must do their part. Weixler thinks some people ignore the crime tips or simply don’t read them, and he believes Monday’s shooting victim was among them.
“He probably was walking up Lombard Street talking on his phone,” said Weixler, the frustration evident in his voice. “We get a lot of petty robbery like that, but less than Old City where you have drunk people coming out of a bar.”
I visited Society Hill the day after the shooting, and as I rounded the corner of Fourth and Pine, I saw a neighborhood that was trying its best to return to the happy, close knit community that both Harper and Weixler described. Mothers and toddlers walked hand in hand on Lawrence Street, near the spot where the shooting took place. Police on bicycles chatted with neighbors near the Old Pine Street Church. A man dressed as a magician rushed down a nearby street. Women jogged alone.
Were it not for the presence of the news vans on Fourth Street, it would have looked like a regular spring day. But as the neighbors’ nervous smiles indicated, nothing was normal about that afternoon, and in Philadelphia terms, nothing is normal about Society Hill. It is one of a few places where neighbors trust the police enough to work closely with them.
“I’m a Philadelphian and I know there are certain parts of the inner city that don’t have the police visibility we have here,” Harper said. “Is that new or different? I don’t think so. That’s just the way it is. If you get caught doing something here that’s because there’s higher [police] visibility. You’re probably more likely to get caught here than anywhere else.”
Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Maybe if poor neighborhoods received as much attention as affluent ones, crime would not be such a problem in Philadelphia. Maybe if more of us viewed the crime in North Philadelphia as a harbinger of what would come to Society Hill, we would do more to address it.
Asked what neighbors are looking to do about crime beyond their own neighborhood as a way to help Society Hill, Weixler said they’re working with the neighborhoods that border their own.
“We’re more concerned with neighborhoods like Washington Square West, Queen Village, and the South Street Headhouse District that are dealing with crime. We’re willing to cooperate with them. We’re not saying it’s your problem because it happened on the top half of Lombard Street. We do what we can as neighbors.”
Weixler paused. Then he asked a rhetorical question. “We Philadelphians hang on to our traditional neighborhood identity pretty well, don’t we? I could easily say it’s not my problem because it didn’t happen in my neighborhood.”
Yes, you could say that, but I hope you won’t, because crime isn’t restricted by neighborhood boundaries.
Our response shouldn’t have boundaries either.